Canada to Pakistan
Her body was getting numb from the lack of movement, the flight seemed like it would never end. In a way Ayesha didn’t want it to end, the plane wouldn’t land and she would never have to bury her beloved father. It didn’t seem real, she was sitting up here and somewhere in a cold pitiless box laid her father. Just days ago he had been warm living flesh. She could still feel his strong reassuring hand holding hers, hear his laugh, but it was getting vaguer, he was slipping away. She was frozen, he was fading. She couldn’t feel the reality of her loss and he would disappear before she would.
She looked out the window at the fluffy white clouds, they were tinged with pink from the rising sun. Her baffled mind kept wandering, not wanting to dwell in the present. She thought back to when she used to lie in her backyard and gaze at the sky, imagining what it would be like to sink in to the clouds. A sudden image of two young girls lying in the grass came to her mind. It seemed like centuries ago, had she imagined it?
“Maria, I have to ask you something really weird, so don’t laugh.”
“You always have to tell me something weird, Ayesha, have I laughed before?”
“Do you ever get this wish to lie in the clouds? To just …I don’t know, be absorbed into those colors, orange, pink, silvery blue. It’s just so beautiful, it kind of hurts…”
Maria turned over on her side to look at her friend and said in her most analytical voice, “You have an overly developed, highly aesthetic sense… And you’re bloody weird too!” Then she burst out laughing.
But her father hadn’t laughed, Faizan just smiled knowingly.
“I feel like that too sometimes. When I was a boy…”
“Would you like a drink?”
Ayesha snapped back to her surroundings, no! He was so clear...gone like the reflection in a pond ...inadvertently, by a passing swan drifting, blissfully ignorant.
“Are you okay?”
The airhostess smiled at her, oblivious of her cruel intrusion, politely offering a drink. Ayesha asked for a coke and sipped it slowly. It was ice cold, just the way she felt inside. Why couldn’t she cry, or scream or beat the walls with her fists? She was far away, every emotion had been stripped from her heart. Maybe everything had all died with her father.
She turned to look at her mother. Naheed was so beautiful, and Ayesha had always wished she had looked like her mother. The typical Eastern beauty, golden skin, huge eyes, small rosebud mouth and jet black thick hair rolled into a bun. She would never forget the way her father would look at her mother, so lovingly, so full of pride, the stuff fairy tale romances were made of. How would her mother feel without that look? She wondered if her mother would ever wear lipstick again.
“Oh God, how could I think of something so stupid at a time like this?” She whispered to herself. But nothing was making sense, her mind kept drifting from memories to insignificant thoughts and everything in between. Maybe she would wake up from this nightmare. She wanted to cry, she felt so guilty. What would her father think of his dearly loved, eldest daughter? She hadn’t mourned him with the oceans of tears he deserved.
She looked at the people around her, sleeping, reading… living. Life didn’t stop for anyone. Some idiot was trying to flirt with one of the young airhostesses. She looked very pretty in her light and dark green shaded uniform. He looked like a complete imbecile.
“Stupid Dubai palat desi.” she muttered under her breath with extreme disgust as she contemplated his too tight jeans, red T-shirt and cheap sunglasses. He was flashing a paan stained smile at the patient young lady, imagining her to be appropriately impressed with his incredibly bad English grammar. What was it with Pakistanis and the English language anyways? She thought back to her last trip to Pakistan. Her cousins’ friends had been so impressed with her English and she would feel so foolish because she could communicate perfectly well in Urdu. It was like a status symbol. If you spoke in English, especially in crowded places where a lot of people could hear you, you were really cool.
Somewhere in the distance she could hear a voice. It was the flight attendant making an announcement. They were going to land shortly and they had to fasten their seatbelts. She turned to her younger brother and sister to wake them.
“Maaz, wake up. I have to fasten your seatbelt.”
“No Dad! Let me sleep,” he mumbled dreaming. Ayesha was helpless against the pain dictating their lives. There was nothing she could do to defend herself or her young siblings.
Maaz was only ten and had been very attached to their father, but hadn’t they all? When the dead body had been brought to their house he had tried to fight the tears and be brave but he couldn’t. He had clung to his mother and cried so painfully, he couldn’t look at his dead father. That lifeless stranger just couldn’t be his father, nothing could happen to his father. He wouldn’t talk to anyone, he just kept crying quietly and held his mother’s hand tightly, afraid to let go. He was so terrified of being separated from his mother as though something would happen to her too. His big black eyes had lost their sparkle and were haunted by dark shadows underneath them. He had made himself his father’s constant companion ever since he had learned to walk.
Khadija looked like a miniature of their mother. She was five years old and what she said usually became the law. Her doting father happily indulged her every whim. Her mother lovingly joked that Khadija was his burappay ki aulad, he had been only forty-two. Unlike her brother, Khadija had clung to her dead father and begged him to wake up. The scene had been too much to bear and Ayesha shuddered as she recalled it. She had left the room, trying to get away from the situation, not wanting to believe what had happened. Their mother just sat there, not crying, not moving. Nanni had quickly pulled the wailing Khadija off her father and cradling her like a baby, taken her out of the room.
Nanni was their next-door neighbor. She was practically everyone’s Nanni. She had come to live with her son-in-law and daughter years ago and had immediately assumed the role of grandmother to every Pakistani and even non-Pakistani child in the vicinity. Ayesha would miss her deeply, she still couldn’t believe all that they were leaving behind.
She didn’t want to oppose her mother and part of her knew there was never any other choice. But she just couldn’t imagine that this is where they would end up. What about all the plans they had made? What about her friends, her beautiful home, her freedom? Ayesha had gotten a glimpse of what Pakistan was during their last visit. She didn’t want to hurt her parents’ feelings, but she hated the heat, which got worse with the disappearances of electricity throughout the whole scorching summer. And being trapped in the house all the time had almost driven her crazy. The only way she could go out anywhere was if an adult took her, as if she was a baby! She couldn’t walk to the library or take a bus to the mall by herself, there wasn’t a public library nearby and the open dusty bazaars didn’t hold much attraction. She had been so relieved to get back home to Canada. She had wanted her father to promise they would never go back to live there, and Ayesha’s father had teased her that he would marry her off in Pakistan.
“We will come and visit you every year! Think of it, no more snow, just sun and palm trees...”
“You make it sound like Florida Dad! What about the dirty streets and the overflowing gutters, not to mention the crime rate. And I guess having a corrupt government is the latest fashion?”
“Oh come on Aish! Karachi is on the coast of the Arabian Sea. You don’t have any sea sides in Ontario do you?”
“No! And we don’t have any beggars sleeping in the streets or the electricity disappearing or riots and curfews. Really Dad I’m a boring person, dull old Canada is fine for me.”
But dull old Canada was slipping away too. She almost felt mad at her father, he shouldn’t have joked about it. It was coming true, she was going to live in Pakistan. Only her father would never visit.
The final good-byes at the Toronto airport had been agonizing. All their friends and neighbors had been there. Ayesha had absolutely no idea of what had been going on, neither had her mother. It was such a long and confusing process, but their friends and neighbors had taken care of everything from school records to death records. Ayesha’s father would be “officially dead” in a couple of weeks. He would be buried in Pakistan much before that.
The drunk driver would get life imprisonment. Naheed felt no sense of justice, her husband was gone, torn away forever. Faizan had never hurt anyone in his life, he was too good to have suffered for hours as life slowly drained out of him. No consequence could ever balance the scales. Everyone had known the outcome, to them it was just a dreary bit of news. Life imprisonment? Oh, that’s too bad, or good, he deserves it, but what difference does it make really? Faizan wasn’t coming back.
Their beautiful house would be sold off along with all the things they couldn’t take with them. All the things that had been so special to them, Ayesha thought sadly of each and every one of their belongings. Her father had indulged Naheed’s finicky whims and everything had its own unique meaning for them. They would all be bought by some strangers, who would never value those things, would never know how important those things had been to Ayesha and her family. They would just be bargains they got at a garage sale.
Nanni’s son in law, Mehmood, arranged for everything. Selling the house, insurance and bills to immediate tickets and special transport for the dead body to its last destination, Pakistan. Mehmood and Faizan had been friends before they had come to Canada. They had been classmates in University, been through thick and thin and shared so much of their lives that Mehmood felt as though he had lost his brother. He was so helpless, he didn’t want Naheed to take her children back to Pakistan but he knew she had no choice. A young widow raising three children on her own in a “foreign” country when she had two families to go to, it was unheard of in their culture. Her family would want her to live with them or with her in-laws so she could get the support she needed for her children and herself. Mehmood would miss his friend’s children profoundly. He had known each of them since they were born. Their houses had been so full, his four children and Faizan’s three, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. Taking care of Faizan’s final worldly affairs seemed so insubstantial, but it was all he could do now for his best friend’s grieving family.
Mehmood’s daughter, Maria was Ayesha’s best friend. They had grown up together and Maria didn’t have any sisters, just three rowdy brothers, all the more reason to be at Ayesha’s most of the time. Maria was a real beauty, silky black hair, hazel eyes and tanned skin. She always wore clothes that were slightly daring in Ayesha’s eyes, but Ayesha adored her, she admired her for being everything that she herself wasn’t. They were exact opposites, maybe that’s why their attraction was so strong.
Maria held on to Ayesha at the airport not wanting to let go. She was losing the sister she had always wanted. She was crying so hard, she couldn’t get the words out properly, the lump in her throat was choking her. Ayesha just hugged her silently. There were no tears on her part, she was unemotional, but Maria understood her unspoken anguish. She knew Ayesha inside and out, she knew all the pain that was trapped inside tearing her friend apart.
“We’ll talk on the phone....” She swallowed a sob, “I’ll write to you … everyday… and I’ll
phone. I’ll miss you so much……….” She couldn’t go on.
Ayesha rubbed her eyes, trying to rub out all the images coming back to her again and again. The plane was landing. Ayesha pulled out the tray, put her pillow on it, stuck her face in the pillow and her fingers in her ears. She braced herself for the landing; she hated travelling on a plane. Now it would be the last time.
Walking down the cool crowded corridor, Naheed pulled her dupatta down a little further on her forehead, holding it tighter under her chin. She was aware of the admiring glances and suddenly felt embarrassed. She was supposed to be in Iddat and should not be seen by any males, but she couldn’t have stayed in that house any longer. She felt as though she would lose her mind seeing Faizan in every room. Everywhere she looked, she saw him watching her, then disappearing when she reached out, he looked so sad. She just wanted to get her children out. She had to come back home, she needed her family. She couldn’t leave her husband behind. She owed it to his mother and family, to let them see their favorite son for the last time. She couldn’t leave her husband behind because her son would visit his father’s grave and recite prayers for him. She couldn’t leave her husband behind because someday she would be buried next to him.
She had dressed in the drabbest clothes she had. It was a brown, loose shalwar kameez suit she had sewn when she was pregnant with Khadija. It was comfortable and had hidden her protruding stomach very well. After Khadija was born Faizan wouldn’t let her wear it.
“This is for old women. I don’t want to see you wearing it ever again.”
“But Faizan, it’s so comfortable. I’ll only use it as a night suit.”
“Throw it away! I won’t let you sleep in my bed with that thing on!”
“Okay! I’ll keep it for when I’m old. Fine?”
He had pinched her cheek playfully, “You’ll never grow old.”
“No Faizan, you’ll never grow old”, thought Naheed as tears welled up in her eyes.
He had never wanted her to wear anything that wasn’t stylish. He loved the way she looked. But what he had loved most was her modesty, she would wear anything for him, but when she went out she always covered herself properly. Now she felt uncomfortable, exposed, and vulnerable. She wished she had worn a burqa and naqab. She didn’t want anyone to see her. Her beauty was only for her husband and now he wouldn’t be there to appreciate it.
They were waiting in line for their baggage to be inspected by the customs official. Naheed held Khadija’s hand tightly and turned to check on Ayesha and Maaz. Ayesha looked so much like her father. It almost hurt to look at her. It had stung Naheed that Ayesha was not beautiful, but at least she was showing potential of growing prettier. She was a little gangly, making a late transition from caterpillar to butterfly, sixteen soon to be seventeen. Her eyes were large, light brown and had the same honest expression as Faizan’s. She stood the same way her father had, shoulders and back straight, not slouching, like other girls her age. One leg stuck out slightly in front of the other. Very confident, almost as if she were modeling clothes for a picture.
Ayesha was wearing black culottes and a long loose fitted gray shirt. Her head was covered by untamable, wavy dark brown hair, which she refused to cover. She had been Faizan’s favorite, and although he denied that he had a favorite, he adored his eldest daughter. Ayesha had enjoyed her reign as the sole princess of the house for six years. But it hadn’t spoiled her, she was dependable and perceptive. She had never given her parents a hard time. Now she had new responsibilities propelled at her, but was she ready for them? Naheed had been amazed at the strength she had shown these past few days. But she felt regret, Ayesha was still a baby, her baby and she could do nothing to make this nightmare go away. She wanted to take her into her arms the way she did when Ayesha was younger. Faizan had loved to cuddle her. He wouldn’t be there for his daughter when she needed him, to share her sorrows or joys. He would never see her as a bride. Naheed turned away from her daughter’s face quickly feeling tears well up again. Everything was becoming so unbearable. She wondered when she was going to crack and then what would become of her already distraught children.
The customs officers were saying something politely, but Naheed couldn’t understand. Nothing was registering. She just nodded and they started moving on again. All four of them walked in silence, while all around was the bustle of people, walking, talking, laughing, anticipating meeting loved ones. Finally they came to the big open glass doors and were greeted by the intense humidity of Karachi’s summer. A sweltering August. And it was not just the weather, the political situation was boiling too.
The crowds of people made it seem even worse. People waving, calling, running to meet someone or the other. All the faces were unfamiliar, smiling, happy. What right did they have to be so happy? Then among the sea of unknown faces, there were familiar ones with expressions that matched their own. Eyes full of pain and disbelief. Suddenly they were surrounded, the sound of silence finally broken. Now they could hear the crying, they could feel painful daggers once again ripping through their hearts. The tears they could not shed were now flowing madly. Ayesha looked at her mother being enveloped by her grandmothers and her aunts, Naheed was crying like she never had before. The pillar of strength had finally been crushed in the loving arms of her family. Ayesha turned to look for Khadija and Maaz. They had been taken up by uncles and aunts. Ayesha felt strange, she felt distant. She didn’t realize she was walking away from them. What was happening? It was so hot and humid, the sunlight was blinding, the sounds of crying seemed to get louder and louder. It was as though someone was screaming in her ears. But still she could not cry. She was the only one not crying. She was staring at that mourning mob like an outsider. Suddenly she felt very scared and alone. She just wanted her father. Her knees felt weak, her head was pounding, then her stomach could take no more, she threw up. She couldn’t control herself any longer and didn’t care who saw and who didn’t. She was absolutely lost and terrified. Where was her father? Everything was getting dim, she blacked out. Strong arms picked her up and perfectly manicured hands cleaned her face, a straw was pushed into her mouth and she automatically started drinking. A cold fluid seeped down her throat and she became aware of people around her. Before she looked to see who had picked her up, she knew who it was.
“Bhai Jan? Sabeen baji?” asked Ayesha, barely whispering.
“We’re here, don’t worry. Did you think we would forget you?” replied a soothing feminine voice.
Her cousins, Sabeen and Hasan had reached her before she fell. They were the only ones who heard her cry out for her father before she fainted.